Shady practises

Arsenal assistant manager Pat Rice is a beacon of hope to sufferers of a rare and misunderstood social affliction, writes Damian Hall

Some Arsenal fans want assistant manager Pat Rice to retire or even step aside. The idea is that the former Gunners captain will be replaced with some hitherto unidentified tactical genius and “no” man who’ll push the club on to grab some silverware more prestigious than the Emirates Cup. Which we’ve won in three of the last four years, by the way. Pat (I can call him that because we’re mates – you’ll see) is seen as something of a “yes” man to Arsène Wenger and the feeling is that perhaps Le Prof’s philosophy needs tweaking here and there. Such as, try shooting. But I don’t want Pat to leave. Not now. Not ever.

You see, we shared a common affliction. On a mild September afternoon in 2000 I had what can only be described as an epiphany. Dennis Bergkamp had turned the ball towards the Coventry goal, only for an airborne Magnus Hedman to halt its path. “That was his third great chance,” I bellowed from my seat behind the goal. “Bergkamp really should have scored by now!” People were turning to stare my way, with bemused looks in their eyes and we-know-better, sympathetic smiles. I was smirkingly informed that Bergkamp was in fact Freddie Ljungberg. I badly needed spectacles.

Of course, it’s obvious now that I should have taken more time to think about it. But when the optician – who you would hope to be a morally responsible person – suggested spectacles with an in-built automatic tinting system that would be good for driving and stop me having to buy prescription shades too, it sounded like a very good idea indeed. Safe, economical and with a hint of secret spy gadgetry about it.

The thing was, I had bought a pair of frustrated shades. They could, and would, turn black with a pinprick of light – on the underground, in the pub and any time I ventured near a street lamp.

To the outside world I had become a permanent shades wearer, slipping seamlessly into the same bracket as teenage wannabe rock stars and people who think they’re famous because they’ve appeared on Kilroy. I was oblivious to when the glasses were tinting and had to rely on friends to point it out. Which they did reliably. It wasn’t all bad, admittedly. I could see things a bit better. I realised, disappointingly, that David Seaman wasn’t actually wearing a Davy Crockett hat and that someone called Gilles Grimandi had been playing for Arsenal for the last few years entirely without my knowledge. Yet these life enhancements seemed scant consolation. It got worse.

My nadir came on a cold February afternoon as I watched a Conference match at Forest Green’s inappropriately named ground, The Lawn. At just after four it was getting dark. As the floodlights came out to play, my dependably disobedient spectacles did their party piece. I was used to it by then and was oblivious anyway. But the Sky cameras just happened to be there and had, with horrible coincidence, chosen that moment for a close up of yours truly. Wearing shades. In the dark.

Not your average close-up either. The producer, or whoever decides these things, evidently found something worthy of public interest in my appearance and let the camera linger a while. There was nothing much happening on the pitch after all, just a frantic relegation dogfight. And a while more. Long enough for an absent so-called friend, battling back the tears of laughter, to reach for the VCR record button just in time. There’s no two ways about it, I looked a prize pillock. And my moment of fame is on videotape for posterity.

But then, at my lowest point, an angel came to me, albeit an angel in a tracksuit. I had always imagined that I was utterly, bitterly and desperately alone with my miserable social handicap. But I discovered I wasn’t the sole sufferer of spectacle folly. Sitting on the Arsenal bench, without a care in the world, though tucked under a blanket looking disturbingly like a grandmother about to reach for the Thermos at this time of year, was someone with the very same pair. Assistant manager and Arsenal legend Pat Rice. My new hero.

Pat sits there so defiantly unselfconscious as his specs change from transparent to dark and back again by the minute (as, for example, a light-obstructing substitute jogs past). Regardless of what life has dealt him, he just gets on with it, as if he’s as normal as the next man. Saint Pat’s not ashamed or embarrassed, he’s just comfortable with who he is. He is the Rik Waller of football. He is a role model, a beacon of light in dark depressing days, who gives strength and courage to bad spectacle sufferers the world over. Gawd bless him.

I just wanted to say, thank you Pat. You gave me hope when all else was lost. And for this reason he must stay in the public spotlight, to others who’ve made the same dreadful and desperate mistake.

From WSC 295 September 2011